“Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed his support for the Hong Kong protests on Twitter on October 4. The tweet, which has since been deleted, caused a public outcry in China and resulted in a costly fight between the N.B.A. and China, the league’s highest priority and largest international market.
Despite deleting the tweet and apologizing shortly after, stating that his view did not represent that of the N.B.A. or the Rockets, the damage could not be undone. Chinese state broadcaster responded by suspending broadcasts of the league’s preseason games played in China. Chinese sponsors Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Center both said they would pause partnerships with the Rockets.
Speaking at the Time 100 Health Summit on October 10, the league’s commissioner Adam Silver said that the Chinese government had asked the N.B.A. to fire Morey, which he refused. The Chinese government has denied this claim.
Silver added that the consequences of the tweet “have already been substantial. Our games are not back on the air in China as we speak, and we’ll see what happens next.”
China’s censorship of the West
This isn’t the first instance of China’s censorship of the West. David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, has previously said that the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping has brought about “tighter, more centralized control of media and ideology.” This means that products of the West such as Hollywood movies, T.V. shows, games, and apps, have to censor content to reach the Chinese market or risk not doing business in China at all.
Earlier in October, Apple made the controversial decision to remove Hong Kong protest tracking app HKMap.live from its App Store. The motivation behind this is that the app “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.” The decision was made after China Daily published an opinion piece that criticizes Apple’s decision to allow “toxic apps” on the App Store. It added that “[Apple] needs to know that only the prosperity of China and China’s Hong Kong will bring them a broader and more sustainable market.”
Apple has a sizeable financial stake in China. The New York Times reported that Apple generated nearly $44 billion in sales in from July 2018 to June 2019. This number represents almost a fifth of the company’s global sales. Apple’s presence in China has created about 5 million jobs, including 10 000 direct employees.
Similarly, Hollywood movies face censorship in order to penetrate the Chinese market. Currently, China has a quota system to limit the number of foreign films screened in the country. In 2018, the limit was 34 films, distributed on a revenue-sharing basis. International studios would only receive 25% of Chinese box office profits, with the remaining 75% going to local co-production studios, Chinese distributors, and cinemas.
According to the China Media Project, films that want to be screened in China need to go through the approval and censorship process of a government agency, under the supervision of the party’s Central Propaganda Department. CNN reports that China’s reasons for censorship can range from “jeopardizing the unification, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State,” to showing acts that the government deems inappropriate.
One example is the Chinese release of the 2019 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which removed all depictions and mentions of Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality. Actor Rami Malek, who won an Academy Award for his lead role, was also censored for mentioning “a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself,” in his Oscars acceptance speech. The Chinese streaming platform Mango T.V. replaced “gay man” with “special group” in its subtitles.
Even the children’s film Christopher Robin was refused its China release in 2018. The Hollywood Reporter said the reason was China’s crackdown on images of Winnie the Pooh, which had become a symbol of resistance since 2017 because of its resemblance to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In June 2018, China also blocked HBO after its talk show Last Week Tonight mocked Xi’s sensitivity over being compared to Winnie the Pooh.
Despite censorship, China’s sizable market makes it a must for Hollywood movies hoping to make a profit. A 2019 study from PricewaterhouseCoopers projects that China is set to become the global top moviegoing audience in 2020. The success of Hollywood movies also depends on ticket sales in the Chinese market. For example, 2019 summer blockbuster Godzilla: King of the Monsters generated $135.4 million in China, accounting for over a third of the movie’s global $385 million box office.
Freedom of expression vs. profit
China’s strict censorship of Western elements and affiliates raises concerns about profit versus freedom of expression. Animated adult series South Park addresses the matter in its latest episode, Band in China. After airing, the episode caught media attention for its sharp critique of Hollywood creators as well as the portrayal of “re-education camps” similar to the Muslim re-education camps that the Chinese government operates in Xinjiang province.
Unsurprisingly, the episode and all mentions of South Park were subsequently censored from the Chinese internet. Every clip, episode, and online discussion of the show has been erased, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have issued a faux apology that doubled down on their message. “Like the N.B.A., we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the statement reads. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now, China?”